April 11, 2011

Monday Morning Midfielder: The Battle for the Soul of Lacrosse

by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com

Syracuse coach John Desko said the stall warnings against his team Saturday were unfounded, especially since Princeton refused to apply pressure on the ball. It's the latest flareup in the ever-present debate on the pace of the game in college men's lacrosse.

© Greg Wall

Did someone insult John Desko's family?

That's all I could remember thinking Saturday when I scrolled up to the 800s, found ESPNU in HD, selected to view the Syracuse-Princeton men's lacrosse game and saw Desko berating an official. You've got to know Desko to know how bizarre that looked. You would expect Bill Tierney to compliment an official on his shoes before Desko would yell at one.

The cause: Syracuse received repeated stall warnings as it attempted to find a seam in Princeton's zone defense.

Telling Syracuse to "keep it in" is like telling Lindsey Lohan to let loose. If Desko had his druthers, every opponent would man up and play free-wielding lacrosse like his team does. But injury-riddled Princeton went all armadillo on the Orange, and it almost worked. Just like it almost worked for Hopkins and Villanova.

Almost. Syracuse held on for a 7-5 victory.

"I probably let my emotions get the best of me in the first half," Desko later admitted to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

He was well within his right to do so. The Tigers refused to challenge the Orange's ball carriers behind the cage or near the restraining line. It was "a good game plan," Desko even said, especially with Tyler Fiorito in goal. Officials' only recourse to speed up the game was to drop a stall warning on Syracuse -- something the NCAA rules committee, according to Desko, urged it would not do if defenses did not apply pressure.

Is there anybody in lacrosse invoked more often these days than the NCAA rules committees? There's a battle being waged right now for the soul of lacrosse. Dom Starsia wants a shot clock and potentially the elimination of faceoffs, but needed a zone defense to beat Carolina. Quint Kessenich wants more games on TV and more TV-friendly lacrosse, but bemoans people are watching from home rather than Homewood. Bill Tierney and John Danowski would rather play in front of 6,000 people at sold-out Bethpage High School than 20,000 at the quarter-full New Meadowlands.

On the women's side, college coaches' tactics contradict their statements on issues like stalling and foul play, on the need to accentuate players' athleticism but keep them out of helmets.

None of these issues are new, but you get a sense that the battle for the soul of lacrosse has reached its boiling point.

Shutoffs don't work

Duke decided someone other than Mark Matthews would have to score for Denver. Harvard decided someone other than Rob Pannell would have to score for Cornell.

Talk about your all-time backfires.

Does anything fuel a team's ego more than to know one of its players is so good, opponents have no choice but to play five-on-five? Not to mention the motivational slight it provides that player's supporting cast.

Todd Baxter made the Blue Devils pay with four goals, as then-No. 10 Denver pulled a 12-9 upset of then-No. 3 Duke on Long Island. Matthews got his, too, with a goal and two assists.

David Lau, meanwhile, did his best Pannell impression with five goals and three assists in Cornell's 13-12 victory over Harvard which ensured the Big Red at least a share of its ninth straight Ivy League regular season title.

Seeing these teams resort to shutoffs to neutralize top players and others resort to zones to neutralize high-octane offenses makes me appreciate all the more the way Notre Dame has institutionalized its defense -- quick-sliding and uncompromising in its execution, regardless the opponent.

Denver does it despite injuries

Denver's upset of Duke is even more impressive when you consider the Pioneers have been without two of their top midfielders. Patrick Rogers (broken foot) has been out since mid-March and Andrew Lay (broken jaw) has missed the last two games.

Chase Carraro has provided support, staying on the field to provide a dodging and scoring threat as well as his faceoff prowess. The sophomore from Kentucky scored two goals and took 10 shots against Duke. Cameron Flint (3g) is the rock of the Pioneers' midfield group.

Loyola resurrects season

Don't hand Denver the ECAC championship just yet. After a three-game skid that included an embarrassing loss to Air Force, Loyola has rebounded with three straight wins – including impressive victories over Ohio State (12-9) and Fairfield (7-6 in OT) the last two weeks.

The Greyhounds have found new sources of offense since Mike Sawyer's hot hand has cooled. Midfielder Chris Palmer, a fifth-year player who transferred from Bucknell, scored five goals in the win over Ohio State, while D.J. Comer won the game against Fairfield with a shot from 25 yards out.

Early-season upstarts fade

Cinderella stories in March happen in college basketball, not lacrosse. Three surprise teams that got us all hot and bothered early this season have stepped backward from the spotlight.

Albany rose to as high as No. 14 in the national rankings following wins over Ohio State and UMass, but the Great Danes have been terrible since. They've lost six of seven, including setbacks to teams like Marist, Hartford and most recently Vermont.

Ohio State had that huge upset of North Carolina in February and was 5-1 as recently as March 8. But the Buckeyes hit a four-game skid that they broke Saturday with an 11-4 win over Hobart.

Penn upended defending national champion Duke, but has lost four of its last six after unranked Brown defeated the Quakers 13-12 on Saturday. Two of those losses, however, came in overtime to Villanova and Cornell, so there's a good chance Penn will make more noise before season's end.

Weekend's Best

Player: Kevin Benzing, Quinnipiac

Anytime a goalie scores, it's worth at least an honorable mention. Put 16 saves on top of that in a key Northeast Conference contest, and yeah, you're the weekend's best. Benzing did it all for the Bobcats in a 19-15 shootout victory over NEC favorite Robert Morris.

Honorable Mention: David Lau, Cornell; Scott Perri, Drexel; Mark Staines, North Carolina; Colin Briggs, Virginia; Rob Schlesinger, Brown; Cameron Mann, Jacksonville; Jamie Faus, Denver; Robbie Campbell, Stony Brook; Brian Karalunas, Villanova.

Game: Virginia 11, North Carolina 10 (OT)

A combination of mismanaged possessions by Virginia and remarkable late-game patience by North Carolina allowed the Tar Heels to erase a three-goal disadvantage in the final three minutes to force overtime. Steele Stanwick made it academic in OT. You can't overstate the importance of that goal and that win for the Cavaliers.

Honorable mention: UMass 9, Towson 8 (OT); Denver 12, Duke 9

Quote: Bill Tierney, Denver

"Only in the sport of lacrosse can you pull something like this off, where you get two teams in the top 10, two coaches willing to give up games to travel 1,000 miles to play in a high school venue. This is what lacrosse is all about. I would give up anything to play in an event like this again at Bethpage."

The Pioneers host Ohio State at Invesco Field at Mile High on Saturday.

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